This past winter, I coached a high school boys team. We practices most of the time in a 4 lane, 25 yard pool heated to 86 degrees. We had 5.5 hours of pool time: four practices one hour in length during the weekday mornings, and a Sunday afternoon for one and a half hours.
Night two of the World Junior Swimming Championship taking place in Indianapolis, Michael Andrew was not having his best night. The first swim of the night went alright, with Andrew about a half second off his personal best in the 100 breaststroke.
He had tried to challenge junior world record holder Nicolo Martinenghi, but couldn't hang on the second lap and was ultimately also passed by American rival Reece Whitely.
He still had the 200 IM, the race where he held the junior world record, coming up. That race, however, was effectively over for Andrew after 50m. After an opening volley of 25.71 on butterfly, his fade began almost immediately and only got worse. The final result was more than eight seconds slower than his record.
That was when the knives came out.
There exists a segment of the swimming follower population that is constantly ready to write Michael Andrew off. Why is there so much furor over a not yet 18 year old junior athlete? Because Michael Andrew violates many of the "values" that a significant portion of the swimming population holds dear.
In no particular order:
1. There are no junior "sprinters" and success at the junior or age group level in short races should be purely incidental, not something you train for. REMEMBER THAT TOM JAGER'S FIRST SENIOR NATIONAL CUT CAME IN THE 1500!
2. Young swimmers should not declare professional, certainly not at 14 like Andrew did. If this catches on then we will be just as bad as those four major sports that we try to look down our noses at.
3. Race pace training doesn't give you the endurance to be good at anything but 50s.
And on, and on, but those are the largest violations he makes. Andrew has had an incredible meet since night 2, setting world junior records in three out of the four stroke 50s. For all the people that are on the other side of one of the cultural wars above, those results have been a boon. And therein lies the biggest problem for Andrew.
Michael Andrew has become a proxy for people's "religious" arguments in the swimming world. I put "religious" in quotes because I'm not talking about real religion, which is an undercurrent of Andrew that I just don't feel qualified to address in this space.
I mean that when it comes to the content of swim practices, many coaches, swimmers and others tend to get a sort of religious zeal about "what works" and what doesn't. Even some of the same people who will tell you that there are "many ways up the mountain" will defend their particular path to the death.
I'm not going to pretend I haven't occasionally fallen guilty to the same. Mostly I'm just trying to enjoy watching this kid swim. There will be plenty of more ups and downs from here, and Andrew deserves not to be a weapon for the rest of us to beat each other over the head with.
Caeleb Dressel's swimming is so fast you can't believe it. Already an NCAA record holder after just his sophomore season, he pushed it to a whole new level this past spring, with new records in the 50 free (18.20), 100 free (40.00) and 100 butterfly (43.58).
That's right, as if his mind boggling 100 freestyle that put him on the doorstep of 39 wasn't enough, he also beat the man (Joseph Schooling) who beat Michael Phelps, in Schooling's best event.
For all his mind-blowing swimming, Dressel wasn't even on the US Olympic team in the 50 free and put up a couple solid 100 freestyles (47.9 and 48.1) on the 4x100 Freestyle relay. What demands explanation is, how can a swimmer like Dressel be so much faster in short course than an all-timer like Matt Biondi.
Biondi's best short course 100 was 41.87, giving Dressel a nearly two second advantage in that race. In the 100m, where a margin should theoretically be bigger due to the longer race, Dressel is just .9 faster (47.5 to 48.4).
Dressel is just one glaring example of a trend. Short course swimming (especially yards swimming) has seen an explosion in improvement over the last two decades. That improvement hasn't translated to long course meters, the Olympic format. So it begs the question: why?
The Skill Explosion
Basketball fans: have you ever watched highlights of Bob Cousy? The greatest ball-handler of his generation doesn't exactly blow people's minds with his moves in 2017. Yes, I know they allow more palming now- blah blah blah. Basketball has seen a skill explosion.
In swimming, skills are all the stuff that's not pure swimming (starts, turns, underwater kicking/pullouts)
Take a look at Matt Biondi swimming, at his peak (race starts around 3:24):
Here's Caeleb Dressel (shown in long course for accurate comparison)
There are some obvious differences that stand out right away. Dressel's start is worlds better than what Biondi or anyone was doing in a bygone era.
Even more so than the aerial theatrics is what happens when they enter the water. I've watched enough Biondi races to know that this wasn't a particularly bad breakout. Seen with modern eyes, Biondi always had a bad breakout.
He surfaces on too steep of an angle, his head lurching awkwardly up to the surface and looking straight forward. I went frame by frame at the turn, and it appears Biondi doesn't even fully streamline, and his legs are loose and unconnected behind him.
Meanwhile, on the surface, Biondi seems like he could be swimming today. In fact, I would venture to say that if we could de-age Biondi and teach him a proper start, turn, and how to kick underwater, he might still be the world's best over 100m.
The Short Of It
A focus on short course swimming can account for this skill explosion. Short course swimming rewards skills, as does higher intensity and measured race pace training. In three years coaching in Europe, I noticed that the majority of European countries placed a much higher focus on long course swimming.
While that led them to have fit athletes, overall you can see a broad deficiency in skill especially at junior levels in European swimming. This, broadly, is why many European athletes have a lot of NCAA success- they pair a strong fitness with increased skill development and make a performance leap.
A leap in long course performance is possible- but it rests on two huge developments. The first will be some significant innovation in overwater stroke technique. Adam Peaty is a good example of a swimmer who has made massive improvements in the world standard of long course performance despite below-average skills.
The second innovation will come with a continued evolution of race pace training to prepare swimmers better for long course racing. There are some inherent conflicts in the race pace theories- with one of the biggest ones being that specificity is given a ton of value, but somehow you should swim repeat short course 25y or 25m to prepare for a long course 100m.
Any coach can tell you that where swimmers struggle to translate their performance in long course is from 25-50m, maintaining their stroke technique, speed and efficiency. I saw it first hand when I used race pace and skill to get a swimmer who had never broken 1:00 in 100 breaststroke to a 55 in short course yards. That swimmer promptly went to Summer Nationals and swam a 1:09 in LCM, which is a nice argument for Long Course only Olympic Trial standards.
Want to bring better analysis to your stroke technique and practice planning? Write me.
"5000 Pull". That was all Gennadi Touretski, often hailed as a the genius of the swim coaching world, wrote up on the board. Then he walked away.
I heard this story from a swimmer who was training with Touretski as a part of his required Swiss army service. Touretski had for some time assumed the mantle of working with these swimmers, but didn't seem particularly interested in coaching them.
The purpose of this post is not to mock Touretski, who's coaching relationship with all-time great Alexander Popov is the stuff of legends. Touretski has used his coaching mind in far more creative ways than "5000 pull", but on this particular practice, he clearly wasn't feeling it.
I'm left to guess as to why. Did he feel the swimmers in the water weren't worth the effort? Was he not getting properly compensated for his time? I tried to put myself in his place- what would have to be going on for me to throw in the towel with a 5000 pull?
One of the least discussed aspects of the ongoing debate in the swimming community over practice intensity is how demanding the coaching is. Coaching a 5000 pull (especially if you walk off the deck and don't even watch it) is very light lifting.
Meanwhile, a set where swimmers are going to swim 20x50 at 200 pace is exceptionally demanding on a coach. Swimmers need constant technical feedback, and will have time to hear it. Furthermore, having it "all on the line" means that swimmers will need specific adjustments based on where they are that day.
So, a coach that wants to do the right thing and change over to race pace will face some real challenges in doing so. For one, they will have to carefully consider whether they will still spend the same amount of time on deck, knowing that they will be coaching at a full sprint instead of a slow walk?
Do they want to have the same number of swimmers in the water? How will they divide attention between swimmers when there is so much more time that they are on the wall and able to receive feedback?
Race pace swimming undeniably demands more from the coach for the time spent on the pool deck. The tradeoff is better quality of both technical instruction for the swimmers in the water and just flat out more coaching.
Swimmers get a lot more value, and coaches should consider that as they change to race pace. Coaches should expect to get something of value in return for this expansion, a not easy feat with many administrators and boards. But it's crucial to start at the very beginning, before race pace becomes the "new normal" for swimming practice and coaches keep everything else on their plate.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate race pace into your own training or your team's? Write me!